PARIS — France has asked companies to submit their best and final offer by the end of this month in a tender for a mini drone to replace the Drac UAV, two industry executives said at the Eurosatory trade show for land weapons.

French special forces are particularly interested in the acquisition, as the service has been a heavy user of the Drac in overseas operations. A win in the French tender is seen to be key for export sales.

The competition, which has sparked close interest from French and foreign firms, is for an order of 210 units, consisting of 70 batches of three UAVs and a ground control system, data link, and 10 years of service, the executives said.

A selection is expected by the end of the year.

Among the companies expected to submit offers are:

  • Airbus Defence and Space is fielding the SkyGhost from its subsidiary Survey Copter. Airbus is the incumbent, having won the Drac contract worth €30 million (US $36 million) in 2005.
  • Gaci, a French systems specialist, is teamed with Israeli partner Elbit.
  • ECA Group, a French technology company, has partnered with Delair-Tech of France.
  • Ineo Defense is fielding a UAV from Aeronautics of Israel.
  • Safran is offering Fly Eye from Polish partner WB Electronics.
  • Thales is pitching Aviation Design’s Spy’Ranger.

The Direction Générale de l'Armement procurement office, Army specialists and special forces held flight trials of the mini UAVs in April and March.

The acquisition is for a system "more or less" off the shelf, one of the executives said. The first UAV is due for delivery six months after the contract award.

A rough estimate of the deal is a unit price of $300,000-$400,000, an executive said. The requirement is for a UAV that weighs about 11 kilograms (including payload), can fly 30 kilometers and can remain in the air for three hours. There is also a request for two payloads — one with a high-definition television, and the other carrying a TV and infrared laser pointer.

Survey Copter drew on lessons learned on the Drac in campaigns including Afghanistan, fitting its Sky Ghost with skids for landing on rocky and rough terrain. An order for the French forces is seen as a decisive factor in an export drive, with the company hoping to close negotiations in Europe and the Middle East for the sale of 90 units.

Safran's Fly Eye, which is launched by hand, has been designed to drop the sensor pack by a small parachute before the mini UAV lands, cutting the risk of damaging the sensitive payload.

Thales' Spy'Ranger, which is also designed for operating on rough terrain, meets NATO security standards.

Survey Copter and Airbus both emphasize that their drones are 100 percent made in France. French unemployment is firmly lodged above 10 percent and a presidential election is due to be held next year.

Safran, Survey Copter and Thales displayed their mini UAVS on their stands at the trade show.